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Inside the Necronomicon

Rumored to be the source of black magic, many have sought in vain for the fabeled Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred. Here now the true story behind the most infamous book never written.

Necronomicon

INTRODUCTION

Like every edition of the pulp horror magazine Weird Tales, the February 1924 issue gave its readers a mix of horror, dark fantasy and unclassifiable stories. That month, readers could peruse Burton P. Thom's short story "The Thing That Should Not Be," Richard Presley Tooker's novella Planet Paradise, and Mary Sharon's poem "The Ghost." But Weird Tales volume 3, issue 2 had something else within, something that would spawn debate for the next eight decades. Deep inside, on page fifty, was a small story by an obscure Providence, Rhode Island author named H. P. Lovecraft. The title of the story was "The Hound."

Of the story itself, its plot revolved around a pair of decadents who devoted their lives to the morbid to find something exciting in their moribund life. But vastly more important and more interesting was the reference book the characters consulted to identify a particular and grotesque amulet freshly extracted from a grave:

[W]e recognized it as the thing hinted of in the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred; the ghastly soul-symbol of the corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng, in Central Asia.

Soon, however, other mentions of the dread book would come from Lovecraft's pen, and many other pens as well. Around the world some would begin to suspect that the Necronomicon was more than a literary device, perhaps even the secret source of black magic itself.

With that short mention in that February's Weird Tales, the improbable history of the greatest book never written began.

THE ORIGINS OF THE NECRONOMICON

In 1927, Lovecraft set down the history of the accursed Necronomicon in an essay. The book, he said, was "composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D." Written in the last years of Alhazred's life, the blasphemous tome, originally titled Al-Azif, contained all the secrets that the poet had discovered during his long study of dark arts in the wastes of Arabia. The book was translated into Greek and Latin during the Middle Ages but suppressed by the Church, though a few copies are said still to exist down to the present day, hidden away in secret places where few can obtain them. Within its pages, which some say were bound in human skin, Alhazred allegedly wrote of the mysteries of the Old Ones, monstrous entities traveling under names like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth who ruled earth in the ancient past and await the time when they will return. These beings were supernatural, trans-dimensional and utterly indifferent to the small, weak mass of humanity. That was the story anyway.

"I must confess," Lovecraft wrote in a 1934 letter, "that this mostrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination!" In fact, Lovecraft said that the very concept of the Necronomicon came to him in the course of a dream. Ironically, that subconscious origin for the blasphemous tome would become a key ingredient in the growing myth of the book.

Several years earlier, Lovecraft had introduced the name Abdul Alhazred in his 1921 story "The Nameless City," where the narrator happens upon a great ruin in the sandy deserts of Arabia:

It was of this place that Abdul Alhazred the mad poet dreamed on the night before he sang his unexplained couplet:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

Lovecraft then assigned his mad poet as author of his dream-book Necronomicon. In 1937, Lovecraft wrote in a letter that the very name Abdul Alhazred was the name he used when playing Arabian Nights as a boy: "Years later I thought it would be fun to use it as the name of a forbidden book author."

All told, Lovecraft would write sixty-two major short stories, about eighteen of which (depending on how you count stories and references -- see here ) would mention the dreaded Necronomicon. Immediately upon completing "The Hound," Lovecraft used the Necronomicon in his next story, "The Festival," written in 1923 and published two years later. In this story he did something revolutionary, placing the Necronomicon alongside the very real Saducismus Triumphatus and Daemonolatreia.

As one of Lovecraft's friends, Psycho author Robert Bloch wrote, "Lovecraft mixed ancient mythology and occult literature by real authors with books and theologies of his own devising. He did this so well that in many short stories, one cannot tell the difference between the two without a lifetime's knowledge of the subject."

This technique allowed Lovecraft to give a verisimilitude to his fictional world, a veneer of plausibility that imbued his tales of cosmic terror with a grounding in the plausibily real. To bolster the illusion, Lovecraft encouraged other writers of weird fiction, like his friends Bloch, and Clark Ashton Smith, to use his creations, and in exchange he mentioned their literary concoctions:

"It rather amuses the different writers," Lovecraft wrote, "to use one another's synthetic demons and imaginary books in their stories--so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon." Frank Belknap Long was the first to take up the Necronomicon, including it in his short story "The Space-Eaters."

Lovecraft also slipped references to his self-created mythology into the work of clients like Hazel Heald or Adolph de Castro, for whom he ghost-wrote or revised stories. In one revision, Zealia Bishop's "The Mound," Lovecraft slipped in a reference to his octopus-headed god Cthulhu, this time under the name Tulu, providing what seemed to be an independent variant of a real myth to the untrained eye.

The combined effect of many different, and seemingly unconnected, authors all referencing what seemed to be the same dark mythology led many readers to mistakenly believe that the Necronomicon and its spawn were real works. So convincing was this intertextual fetish that the world's most famous skeptic, James "The Amazing" Randi, took the book as real in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1995), though some believe this was Randi's misguided attempt at humor.

THE BLASPHEMOUS TOMES

Lovecraft died in 1936, but his creations did not die with him. Lovecraft's friend August Derleth took up where the author had left off, founding a book company named after a fictional city in Lovecraft's stories. Arkham House published collections of Lovecraft's works, and it sponsored frequent publication of stories that shared the strange world of Cthulhu and the Necronomicon. But the stories that came out of Derleth's Arkham House were subtly different from Lovecraft's own. Lovecraft always wrote of his alien beings as being beyond good and evil, outside forces that were indifferent to humanity. Derleth changed this concept and wrote instead of two groups of primal entities, one good one evil, both struggling to rule the world. This subtle shift would become important as the legend of the Necronomicon grew.

In the decades immediately following Lovecraft's death, his stories began to become increasingly popular as ever-greater numbers of people found his work through reprints in Weird Tales, anthologies, and Arkham House books. Soon there were scattered reports that readers actually tried to find copies of the Necronomicon at public libraries and old book shops, prompting Lovecraft to say he felt "quite guilty" for all the confusion. A bookseller named Philip Duschnes went so far as to publish a hoax catalog featuring a listing for the Necronomicon. As time passed, hoaxers began placing fake entries for the abhorred volume in the card catalogs of university libraries. Both Yale and UC Berkeley once sported listings for the mad Arab's work.

Others began to plant fake references to the book in the bibliographies of legitimate works into the 1970s. Even Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, placed the Necronomicon in his reference works for his 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead. It was obviously a joke, as he named Lovecraft as the editor. However, spoofs and pranks like that lent a false reality to the book that never existed.

Just a few years previous, in 1973, George Scithers and Lovecraft biographer L. Sprague de Camp had released a volume they claimed was the original Arabic text, under its original title Al-Azif. However, the text was nothing but a few pages of meaningless calligraphy repeated over and over again. As de Camp admitted, "Having decided that if the Necronomicon did not exist, it should, George Scithers hired an artist to decorate blank pages with a series of squiggles vaguely resembling Arabic and Syriac writing." But this self-described "little hoax" had nothing of the impact of the Simon Necronomicon.

Not long after, in 1977, a man known only by the name of Simon released an inexpensive paperback edition of the Necronomicon, which he claimed was a genuine translation of the text written by Abdul Alhazred in the wastes of Arabia. The next year George Hay, along with many other authors including Colin Wilson, released The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names. Hay, too, claimed that his volume was the genuine book of the mad poet, but Wilson quickly admitted that the book was a pure fake designed for entertainment, not magic. Wilson even wrote an article about it, "The Necronomicon: Origin of a Spoof" (in Crypt of Cthulhu, 1984). But the Simon Necronomicon did not seem to be joking.

New York City, the hub of so many cultural phenomena, was also the hub of occult thought during the first heyday of the New Age in the 1970s. As Daniel Harms and John Wilson Gonce III discovered while researching the Necronomicon, "Into this atmosphere walked a supposed Eastern Orthodox bishop known as 'Simon'. He carried a manuscript that, he claimed, two monks of his denomination had taken from a library or private collection as a part of the biggest book heist in recent history." Despite claiming to be a bishop, Simon was not above making money, and he released 666 copies of Necronomicon in hardcover, and a full paperback edition appeared in 1980.

The Simon volume purported to be a series of magical rituals for invoking the dread gods of the Lovecraftian pantheon. Though it warned its readers not to attempt any of the rituals, it reprinted previously known instructions for magical rites. "It mostly consists of ritual récipé texts transcribed from various Mesopotamian sources, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian, with assorted references to Lovecraftian (and Derlethian) deities tossed in at random," said Dan Clore, an author and researcher into the history of weird fiction.

Alternative history author David Icke, who believes that a race of intergalactic lizard people have a base in the Grand Canyon and plotted to kill Princess Diana, presented the Simon Necronomicon as an important tool for researching "serpent, demon, [and] reptlilian (sic) references." He appears to take the book at face value, though he prides himself on being the "most controversial" author and speaker on earth, so his acceptance of the bizarre may simply be part of the package.

Yet while Icke and many of the people buying the paperback assumed they were getting the true Necronomicon, others were not so sure. The Simon book tells its readers that owning an original copy can produce all manner of harmful side effects, so "as a matter of policy, we cannot honour any requests to see the Necronomicon in its original state."

Harms and Gonce had their suspicions: "When the introduction states up front that no one will be allowed to view the book's manuscript, it already indicates that something fishy is up." They managed to track down the illustrator of the Simon Necronomicon, Khem Caigan, whose work continues to masquerade as genuine ancient mystical symbols. When Avon books asked Caigan to illustrate the sequel to the Necronomicon (as though there were such a thing), Caigan refused, but Avon simply reused the earlier drawings: "Take it from me, artists dont like it much when folks walk off with their work without at least a token nod of appreciation." Caigan confirmed, though, that the manuscript to the Simon volume was hand typed with sketchy illustrations that did not seem to be genuine copies of eighth-century originals.

Dan Clore noticed that the Simon volume contained another mistake that gave away its hoax nature. While it claimed to be the dread volume of Lovecraft, the Simon volume specifically stated that the cosmic entities described therein were in a great cosmic battle: "Lovecraft developed a kind of Christian Myth of the struggle between opposing forces of Light and Darkness," Simon wrote. But this is not a concept from Lovecraft, and the idea was first introduced by August Derleth after Lovecraft's death. Derleth took scraps from Lovecraft's notebooks and turned them into "posthumous collaborations" that were nearly all written by Derleth, complete with this new vision of what had become known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Also, Derleth, as publisher of Lovecraft's works, wrote introductions and prefaces to the works laying out his Christian-influenced scheme, but it was one Lovecraft specifically refuted. In "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," Lovecraft wrote:

He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their everlasting dreams to wreak a wrath upon mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm.

However, Derleth had forever changed Lovecraft's universal order and divided the imaginary pantheon into warring factions, the good Elder Gods, and the bad Ancient Ones (or Old Ones). He also further subdivided the Ancient Ones into Aristotle's elemental forces, so that Cthulhu became a water god, and the Old One's messenger Nyarlathotep, strangely, became a god of earth. This scheme forced Derleth to invent new fictional creatures to fill out his elements, introducing Cthugha as fire and Ithaqua the Wind-Walker as air. Intriguingly, many of these undisputed inventions of August Derleth appear in the supposedly ancient Necronomicon of Simon.

In fact Simon repeats a most basic mistake that Derleth perpetuated. In Necronomicon, Simon says of the Old Ones devotees: "Chief among these is Cthulhu, typified as a Sea Monster, dwelling in the Great Deep, a sort of primeval Ocean; a Being that Lovecraft collaborator August Derleth wrongly calls a 'water elemental.'" Even while refuting the idea of Cthulhu as a creature of water, he assumes that the Cthulhu is sea monster. But Lovecraft said that Cthulhu communicated through transmitted thought, and he became trapped in his city of R'lyeh when it sunk beneath the waves. Now Cthulhu cannot speak because "the deep waters, full of the one primal mystery through which not even thought can pass, had cut off the spectral intercourse." If Cthulhu was a monster of the sea, why does the sea both imprison and restrict him?

But the Simon Necronomicon continues to draw the faithful to its cause, as do many of the other hoaxes. Today there are at least ten different fake Necronomicons available.

In response, the Church of Satan set up a web page devoted to debunking the Necronomicon hoax because they say they receive a "large amount" of e-mail asking about the book. Though they admit that the Simon volume, and all other published versions, are fakes, they hedge on whether they can be used as a genuine magical grimoire, especially since many Satanists (including, it was rumored, Church founder Anton LaVey) use the book for magical rituals. According to the Church, "A careful look at The Satanic Bible will tell you that Dr. LaVey encouraged the magician to use any and all elements of fiction, fact and fancy to create his Intellectual Decompression Chamber."

An occultist who goes by the name of Frater Nigris (Black Brother) goes further. Nigris believes that the Necronomicon can be both real and a figment of Lovecraft's imagination as a sort of spiritual terma, or sacred text: "The writing of this tome at any time after Lovecraft's fabrication, in the special context of termas and grimoires, does nothing to disprove its value or its origin. Just because Lovecraft was perceptive enough to imagine such a text, this does not mean that it did not exist in some fashion (be it within or without the dimension we call 'earth')." Thus the dream becomes the reality.

CULTURAL IMPACT

But even though every expert admits that the Necronomicon is a creation of the incredibly fertile imagination of H. P. Lovecraft, the legend refuses to die, and today more people than ever believe the book is real, mostly because more people than ever before have run across references to the book.

Just as Lovecraft wanted, many of his friends made reference to the book after his death, and today's generation of authors, like Richard L. Tierney and Ramsey Campbell, continue that tradition down to the present day. Perhaps the best recent story featuring the Black Book is "Settler's Wall" (1988) by Robert A.W. Lowndes, a disturbing tale about a wall that has only one side. Like the best Necronomicon tales, the book is mentioned only in passing.

Beginning in the 1960s, Hollywood began to incorporate Lovecraftian references into some of its movies, even basing the (mediocre) Boris Karloff film Die, Monster, Die! on Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space." And in 1970, Dean Stockwell starred in the laughably bad Dunwich Horror, based on the story of the same name. That film featured the Necronomicon several years before any of the hoax editions emerged.

In the years since, the Necronomicon has guest-starred in numerous small films and even had its own movie, 1996's poorly-reviewed H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon: Book of the Dead.

But by far, the Necronomicon's most prominent role was in the Evil Dead movie trilogy. The three films, Evil Dead (1983), Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987), and Army of Darkness - Evil Dead III (1993), follow the adventures of a discount store employee who finds the Necronomicon in a cabin in the woods and accidentally ends up in the middle of a zombie murder massacre, both in the woods and in medieval England (don't ask). In the third film, the Necronomicon is the object of an epic quest, and it has a bigger role than many of the actors.

In the 1980s a company called Chaosium released a role-playing game by the name of Call of Cthulhu, and it made use of the Necronomicon and other Lovecraftian props. By the 1990s the game had become relatively popular, with its own convention (NecronomiCon), and Chaosium had sprouted a line of books to collect Cthulhu-oriented stories. In 1996, they released The Necronomicon: Selected Stories and Essays Concerning the Blasphemous Tome of the Mad Arab. The book contained short stories featuring the book, supposed translations of the book, and scholarly essays digesting the meaning of quotations from the book. Pointedly, it was published under the Chaosium Fiction imprint.

But by far, the rise of the internet contributed more to the legend of the Necronomicon than anything since Lovecraft. Websites devoted to the book sprang up during the mid- and late-1990s, and they varied in quality from the scholarly to the stupid. Many professed a belief in the reality of the blasphemous tome, and still others offered versions of the book on-line, often taken from the published hoaxes (hey, if it claims to be 1300 years old, it couldn't very well be under copyright, they reasoned).

Some people, like Kendrick Erwin Chua and Dan Clore have put up pages exposing the not-so-hidden truth of the Necronomicon to counter the pages that profess its legitimacy. A quick search of the internet finds that most of the people claiming the tome as true rely on a document called the "Necronomicon Anti-FAQ" by Colin Low. In it, Low spins a wild tale that Lovecraft's wife, Sonia Greene, learned of Elizabethan sorcerer John Dee's English translation of the Necronomicon from famed Satanist Aleister Crowley and then passed it on to her husband.

The tale was patently absurd (Lovecraft did not meet Greene until after he published his first story featuring Alhazred), and Low readily admitted that it was a piece of conspiratorial satire, an in-joke. However, some real sorcerers were upset that Low attributed some of Dr. John Dee's magical insights to the Necronomicon instead of the patriarch Enoch. Enochian magician Josh Norton said, "Some modern readers, lacking a sense of humor and irony, have taken his work seriously; as a consequence, the myth of Dee's connection with the book has taken on an air of Utter Authority among certain gullible portions of the magickal community."

But all of the attempts to explain the Necronomicon or to produce a copy of it miss the point. The Necronomicon is terrifying and powerful because it is unseen. It is something spied only dimly, hidden in the dark places and glimpsed only in furtive glances over misshapen shoulders. To expose it to sunlight is to deprive it of its power. Lovecraft understood this, and that is why he refused to write a Necronomicon: "If anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it," he wrote not long before his death.

The Necronomicon has had quite a history for a book that was never written, a history that Dennis Maggard summed up wonderfully in his Cthulhu Hymnal lymerick "Necronomicon":

The Necronomicon? You can't be shown one!
While the libraries never will loan one!
But if it's so rare
And guarded with care
Why does every nut case seem to own one?

© 2002 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.